Emmerson Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe’s president, has signalled a clean break with the past and a desire to re-engage with the west by inviting the UN, the EU and the Commonwealth to send missions to monitor this year’s elections.
Mr Mnangagwa also held out the prospect of swiftly re-establishing good relations with Britain, the former colonial power after a two-decade rift under Robert Mugabe, the autocrat ousted after a brief military takeover in November.
Speaking to the Financial Times in his first interview with an international news organisation since taking office in November, Mr Mnangagwa said he and the UK were keen for Zimbabwe to rejoin the Commonwealth, the club of Britain’s former colonies. Brexit, he added, would help the rapprochement.
Ahead of his appearance at next week’s Davos summit of global business leaders, he also sought to reassure investors Zimbabwe was open to foreign capital and he would take long overdue steps to address the shattered economy he has inherited. However, businesspeople suggested he will need to act on his words to convince them.
Free presidential and parliamentary elections, endorsed by a range of credible independent observer missions, are a critical demand of international donor bodies if they are to consider much-needed debt relief for Zimbabwe.
Mr Mugabe, 93, presided over a series of rigged elections during which his Zanu-PF party intimidated opponents. His government also reneged frequently on pledges to donors. Mr Mnangagwa, a longtime acolyte of Mr Mugabe and a Zanu-PF veteran, insisted that era was over.
“We want fair, free, credible elections,” he said. “In the past those who had pronounced themselves against us, who pre-determined that our elections would not be free and fair, were not allowed to come in. But now with this new dispensation I don’t feel threatened by anything.
“I would want that the United Nations should come, the EU should come,” Mr Mnangagwa added. “If the Commonwealth were requesting to come, I am disposed to consider their application.”
The opposition in Zimbabwe argues that Britain, which has been more open to engagement with the new leadership than the US, should be wary of believing the new rhetoric. Mr Mnangagwa, 75, ran the ruling party’s brutal election campaign in 2008 and was head of intelligence in the bloody subjugation of the Matabeleland region in the early 1980s.
Elections have to be held by the middle of August, and Zanu-PF will be expected to maintain its grip on power.
The already divided opposition was weakened further with the death on Wednesday of Roy Bennett, who was treasurer of the Movement for Democratic Change and a critic of the Mugabe regime.
Mr Bennett was killed with four others, including his wife Heather, in a helicopter crash in the US state of New Mexico. The MDC said Mr Bennett was “a resolute and committed fighter for democratic change in Zimbabwe”.
The opposition alleges that Zanu-PF is stacking the odds against it in rural areas ahead of the elections, highlighting this week’s donation of all-terrain vehicles to dozens of local chiefs.
Mr Mnangagwa dismissed the criticism, saying the vehicles had nothing to do with “vote buying”.
But Zanu-PF critics say the president has merely presided over an internal party coup. Mr Mnangagwa has been criticised for including in his cabinet senior army figures who led the military intervention in November.
During its near four-decade rule, Zanu-PF presided over the implosion of an economy that had been one of the region’s most stable when it took over at independence in 1980.
Years of government profligacy and the elite’s plundering of some prime economic assets have led to soaring indebtedness, fiscal imbalances and a chronic liquidity crisis. The International Monetary Fund estimates that Zimbabwe’s foreign debt is $9.4bn, or 52 per cent of gross domestic product, and it is forecast to rise to more than $10bn this year.
Mr Mnangagwa raised the prospect of returning to the two-year-old talks with multilateral institutions on debt relief. The so-called Lima Plan broke down after Zimbabwe failed to press ahead with reforms and was unable to raise funds to meet its repayment pledges for arrears owed to the World Bank and the African Development Bank.
The president reiterated that an indigenisation law requiring foreign businesses to give a 51 per cent stake to local partners was all but scrapped.
“It’s not in the mortuary. It is at the departure lounge. The entire economy is open except for two minerals: diamonds and platinum,” Mr Mnangagwa said.
In a further sign of a desire to break with the Mugabe era, Mr Mnangagwa said he and the UK were keen for Zimbabwe to rejoin the Commonwealth 16 years after its suspension for human rights abuses.
“When we have engagement, they [Britain] want to raise the issue about us joining the Commonwealth. I said I’ll be happy to deal with that . . . I personally have nothing against the Commonwealth club.”
Brexit, he said, is a “good thing because they will need us. And we will make sure we become very close to them. So that what they’ve lost with Brexit they can come and recover from Zimbabwe.”
Mr Mnangagwa, who had military training in China as a young man, made clear he would seek to retain close ties with Beijing, which helped prop up Mr Mugabe’s economy with loans, while re-engaging with the west.
He is due in China in April “to negotiate megadeals in infrastructure” and railways. “We introduced the Look East policy but that was a survival policy. The east stood by us through thick and thin.”
Alec Russell’s full Lunch with the FT interview with Emmerson Mnangagwa will appear on FT.com on Friday